★★★½☆ Thatcher and the SSO pair a rare beast with a reimagined menagerie.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
September 22, 2017

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Friday matinee Saint-Saens in the Morning saw a rare beast and a not-so-rare menagerie grace the Opera House’s Concert Hall, pairing the French composer’s La Muse et le poète (The Muse and the Poet), Op. 132, with the ever-popular The Carnival of the Animals.

La Muse et le poète for violin, cello and orchestra, isn’t sighted too often – in fact, Assistant Conductor Toby Thatcher led the orchestra in what was the SSO’s first ever performance of the work. Originally planned as a piano trio before Saint-Saëns orchestrated it, the piece feels less like a double concerto than a musical conversation between two soloists – though the evocative title was a marketing ploy insisted upon by the publisher rather than creative inspiration on the part of the composer.

Principal Second Violin Kirsty Hilton and Principal Cellist Catherine Hewgill brought the conversation to elegant life as the soloists, Hewgill’s lines warm-toned and resonant, complimenting Hilton’s clean sound – and both finding plenty of lyricism in Saint-Saëns’ rhapsodic, almost improvisatory, work. Thatcher led the orchestra with panache, a spring in his movements during the bubblier moments, while Hewgill’s dark, motoring cello figures were a highlight. The conversation – following a magical passage in which the two soloists joined in seamless accord – culminated in a taut, snappy resolution.

While The Carnival of the Animals is by no means on the endangered species list of orchestral repertoire, the narration delivered by television presenter Richard Morecroft in this performance – the orchestra joined by pianists Laurence Matheson and Peter de Jager – was a little more novel. Premiered by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in 2016, Bradley Trevor Greive’s poetry to Saint-Saëns’ musical menagerie reimagines the work for the Australian wilderness.

If some reworkings felt a little laboured – the land-bound galumphing of The Elephant doesn’t quite do justice to the aquatic majesty of the dugong, despite a muscular solo by double bassist Kees Boersma – there were plenty others that were inspired. The slowed down, dream-like can-can of The Tortoises became a tribute to the Koala and the blobfish, Thatcher leaning into Saint-Saëns’ crunchier harmonies, while the Wild Asses (Speedy Animals) were galloping emus – an energetic race between Matheson and De Jager – and the music of The Aquarium was neatly reassigned to the Great Barrier Reef, dappled light on water conjured in the glistening piano parts. Francesco Celata’s plaintive two-note clarinet call in The Cuckoo in the Depths of the Forest became the Boobook at night while the famous Swan – the only part of Saint-Saëns’ private joke composition he allowed to be published – became a wedge-tailed eagle, soaring on thermals.

Perhaps the most inspired translation, however, was the reimagining of the Aviary as the Australian Tiger Beetle, the florid flute solo – deftly dispatched by Kim Falconer – scurrying furtively as the world’s fastest insect. While the ensemble between pianos and orchestra felt a tad uneasy in Pianists, reimagined as the Mulga Snake (which sidesteps the humour of the technical exercises on which the music is based), this was nonetheless an effective and enjoyable performance – and a neat way to hear an old favourite with new ears. 

Greive’s poetry, which was full of both irreverent humour and nods to Saint-Saëns own scientific interests, ended on a heartfelt call to arms for conservation, warning of the dangers of extinction, before the music’s celebratory finale brought the concert to a close.